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What caused the Whiskey Rebellion?

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Quick Answer

The Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 was caused by a special tax on whiskey designed by then Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton wanted to empower the federal government, as well as levy its power over the states. The taxes were incredibly unpopular in several states.

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What caused the Whiskey Rebellion?
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Full Answer

At the tail end of the 18th century, farmers turned leftover corn and grain into whiskey, but they were not being properly taxed on the product in the way other conventional products were being taxed. Alexander Hamilton sought to unite federal and state taxes into one group that would then be funded by the federal government. The whiskey tax was devised in part as a way to collect war debts from states that had not yet paid their shares. Violent and destructive protests broke out in several areas, fueled by veterans of the Revolutionary War who believed that they were being levied with taxes without representation again, the principle they fought and died for in the way.

Most of the Whiskey Rebellion occurred in western Pennsylvania, but opposition was fierce in several states with strong distillery presence, like North and South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland. As a result of protest and petition, the excise tax was reduced. The reduction did little to quell the fervor of the protesters, however. The high point in the Whiskey Rebellion controversy came in 1794, when several writs to appear in federal court were issued to more than 60 distillery owners all over the states. These journeys to federal court were expensive, arduous and took quite a long time. Shots were fired at federal marshals serving writes in July 1794. What occurred afterward is known as the Battle of Bower Hill. Eventually, 24 men were eventually indicted for treason. All were pardoned or never formally prosecuted. Marches on Pittsburgh involved up to 15,000 armed men in opposition to the onerous tax. The law was later rescinded, and the controversy ended soon after. The lasting effects of the law, however, prove the federal government's ability to levy taxes for any number of items now commonplace in today's society.

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